Pausing for a few moments to recollect something, he continued. “Three eighteen pounders were all we had to take that bloody fortress of hell! Thunder, Lightning and Nelson they were called, we were so short of ammunition that the men were paid nine pence for every cannonball recovered from those fired at us by Johnny Frenchman. On the retreat they were too heavy and were constantly sinking in the mud. One night we knocked them off their carriages and buried the barrels, I wonder if they’re still there?”
Henry Leathes joined in, “That retreat back to Portugal was the worst we ever had. His lordship was very hard on the army, said we fell apart despite being well supplied. Well no one I knew got more than a handful of rice in five days!”
There was a great rustling in the bushes close at hand, then a Hanoverian infantryman crawled out of the undergrowth and sidled up to the fire. He was looking for his regiment but could not find them in the dark; he stayed by the fire for a while to recuperate, adding his smoke from his clay pipe. Eventually, moving on, he generously offered Alexander the scrawniest chicken he had ever seen, but at that moment it was the greatest thing he could have possessed. He thanked the German profusely, this was wonderful. Everyone cheered up; all the other officers suddenly appeared from their tent, they hadn’t been sleeping that soundly! Water was boiled in the large kettle and the chicken tossed in, but ere it was half cooked, they could wait no longer. It was extracted from the boiling water and roughly portioned between the officers. They tucked in gratefully, but there was little more than a mouthful of half raw meat each. If anything it reawakened their hunger pangs and made things worse.
The only recourse was to sit silently under the umbrella smoking their cigars, it was their only comfort but they suffered patiently. Slowly, despite the cold rain and gnawing hunger, they succumbed to exhaustion and slept on the sodden ground.
Ned Costello dragged himself onwards and passed the ridge and cross roads where the army was encamping as it fell dark, he was directed to continue to the village of Waterloo for medical aid. He forced himself on, cold, wet and weak from his wound, he continued his weary way. He was brought abruptly out of his stupor by the sound of raucous laughter. Looking around he surmised that it had to emanate from a farm cart pulled by a worn old mare and followed by a group of women coming along the road behind him. Ned stepped over to the wagon and standing on tiptoes, peered over the edge of the open cart to see who was within. The cart was layered with straw for bedding and a dozen or more wounded soldiers lay atop.
“Wull bugger me! If it ain’t old Ned Costello, jump aboard me old mate”.
It was Josh Hetherington! With a helping hand up Ned managed to pull himself onto the cart and collapsed on the straw next to Josh.
“Wot the bleeding ‘ell you been up to Josh?”
“Got shot in leg didn’t oi, Sawbones put us on cart fur Brussels.”
“Aye but what’s all the laughter about?”
Josh’s white teeth dazzled in the light of the cart lamp. “Wull these dear ladies we passes enquires for their men folk loik, wull not as to disappoint ‘em, I pretends to be ‘um see, cos they can’t see me in’t dark. Wull they gives me food n’drink and I don’t loiks being rude so oi takes it an’ shares it wiv lads. Wun we finished oi tells um they’re mistaken; oi never said oi was their man, oi just sound loik ‘em!”
“Bastard” Ned retorted but he didn’t stop him when he did it again, the food was too welcome.
Soon the cart trundled into the village of Waterloo, which Ned could recognise, from the odd looking church. They stopped for the night here and lay on the ground underneath the cart for protection from the rain. Ned noted the large numbers of people camping in the woods just beyond. They were the stragglers that travelled in the trail of every army, men who always found excuses not to be at the front when any fighting occurred. These and the camp followers were the scourge of any army, taking liberties with the locals and stealing everything whilst the army was busy. He was also aware of numerous messengers hurrying to and from the tavern; someone had told him that Lord Wellington was using this as his headquarters.
Within those very quarters at Waterloo Harry Smith grasped Juana close to him as if he would completely smother her, they kissed tenderly. As he kissed her neck slowly and softly, Juana let her head arch back. Despite the fears for the future, she would abandon herself to her love one more time. Slowly and methodically Harry unbuttoned the front of her dress exposing a glimpse of her bodice. Harry’s lips now darted lightly across her heaving chest, occasionally brushing the tops of her constricted breasts, which thrilled her more. Their eyes met, the burning passion and desire for each other was overwhelming and they set upon each other with unbridled lust. Their bodies melted into one, their passion rising to a crescendo, they then lay curled in each other’s arms, both afraid ever to let go and end this special moment.
Their last night in rooms at Waterloo had been poignant, a time of tears, hugs and muted discussions of their future as they pretended to each other that nothing would change tomorrow.
Ned Costello, Josh Hetherington and the other wounded awoke early that Sunday morning from the cold damp air, which seeped into their very bones as they lay underneath the cart. Before daylight there had been signs of movement in the village and it was not long before Lord Wellington and his staff were mounting their horses and riding off to organise the army. The only topic of discussion at every campfire was what did Wellington plan to do? Were they to continue retreating or stand and fight? Having won at Quatre Bras they had retreated because the Prussians had been forced to retire, what were the Prussians doing now?
Ned and the few others that could walk unaided clambered out painfully from underneath the wagon, which had served as their protection from the harsh elements, to collect kindling from the edges of the wood that skirted the village. With a bit of perseverance they managed to get a decent fire burning despite the damp wood. A few others had managed to obtain some food by begging from the few village folk that hadn’t fled in terror; this was added to any remnants left in their haversacks. A tolerable breakfast was put together and a steaming mug of sweet tea, that ‘National cure all’ raised their spirits.
As the sun peeped over the horizon, shedding a meagre light from behind the dark clouds that covered the morning sky, the regiments of infantry and cavalry that had bivouacked near the village overnight rose and prepared for a move in whichever direction ordered.
Nobody seemed aware of what was going on, no one knew of any orders. Ned sat warming himself, vainly trying to dry out his sodden uniform from last night’s heavy rain. Wet clothing had a terrible depressing effect on the spirits, if you sat still the areas of clothing in contact with your body warmed a little and became bearable, but any slight movement brought your skin in contact with freezing cold parts and it felt doubly uncomfortable.
At least the rains were gone, the cold misty morning didn’t help however, what they wouldn’t give for that summer sun to break through and warm the air.
Caught up in these feelings of depression and melancholy, Ned simply stared into the fire; even Josh wasn’t his ebullient self. Eventually Ned started to warm a little with the help of the flickering flames and started to take notice of the scene around them again. All that could be seen were ammunition and sutler wagons and the other entrails of an army, parked haphazardly. The infantry and cavalry had all gone!
“Hey Josh, do you remember that Old Portuguese crone, with our pot of food?” Ned enquired.
Josh smiled, “Course I remember, you spotted her trying to nick our ham joint out of the pot whilst we were out of the room. Well she won’t try that again!”
Ned laughed, “No, you throwing your voice into the pot scared her to death. She was sure it was a magic pot and we must be in league with the Devil himself!”
“I’ll wager she never tried to steal from a British soldier again!” Josh laughed.
That brought their spirits up.
During the early hours of that fateful morning, the incessant heavy rain had eventually eased to a drizzle and stopped completely by dawn. There was little comfort for the Riflemen as they awoke with the early light of the new day. Tired, bitterly cold, with saturated clothing they rose from the damp ground and shook sleep off. Being protected by troops in their front, they were not called to arms at dawn but awoke automatically with the bugle calls and drums of those further forward and so had a little time to consider their situation. Reflection led to feelings of utter despair, hunger and cold sapped even the jolliest spirits. A few old hands forced themselves to their feet and strode off to gather twigs and branches, as a fire would help to rekindle their spirits.
Within half an hour a plentiful supply of wood had been collected and small fires dotted all along the front of the army helped to colour the dull grey morning. It was dry, but the sky was overcast, the cloud obliterating the warmth of the early morning sun and a thin mist lay upon the fields. Soon a hearty fire topped with a pot of water, sprinkled with tea leaves and a splash of milk and sugar started to lift their dismal feelings. Hands and feet were pressed close to the fire sending a warm glow through their bodies, the heat caused the men’s uniforms to steam as they dried and the warming and nourishing effects of the hot sweet tea restored their flagging spirits.
The main fire was lit up against the wall of a small stone hut that Sir Andrew Barnard had used to sleep within to avoid the rains overnight.
“That was some bloody storm,” commented Robert to break the silence.
“Aye Sergeant Fairfoot that it was, Wellington weather” added Tom Crawley.
“Good omen that,” commented Johnny Castles, “Wellington always ‘as a bloody big stormy night before a great victory. Appened at Salamanca an’ Vitoria, bloody awful storms they wus an’ all.”
“Old Nosey’ll see us frew, like ee always does” Palmer interjected.
“Bloody look out, ‘tis Nosey ‘imself” snapped Robert Fairfoot.
A dozen horsemen rode up to the fire, leading was the great chief himself Arthur Wellesley, Lord Wellington, an Irishman to boot. Wellington brought his chestnut mare Copenhagen to a halt and his ‘family’ stopped beside him.
“Sergeant is there enough tea for us?” he asked.
“Sure, your lordship, you’re welcome to share our fare” Robert beamed.
Lord Wellington as always wore a simple garb, no bright red tunic scattered with gaudy bejewelled decorations for him. He sported a simple cocked hat worn fore and aft with an oilskin cover to protect it from the damp. He was dressed in a long blue frock coat, buttoned up high, pristine white buckskin pantaloons tight to his thighs, rounded off with black Hessian boots. A plain silver scabbard held his sword hanging at his side, not that he should ever have to defend himself, but Wellington was always at the point of most danger and often experienced close calls. A small portfolio for pen and paper had been designed to replace his pistol holster on his saddle. Wellington sat bolt upright on Copenhagen, a small telescope permanently held ready for use in his right hand. Despite his lack of finery, everything about him spoke of total command, a professional soldier.
Wellington had obviously already been out riding for some hours, his coat and pantaloons heavily speckled in splashes of mud.
He thanked Robert sincerely for his kindness and swiftly downing the hot sweet tea, he rode on to continue preparations for battle and his entourage galloped in pursuit.
George Simmons awoke feeling stiff and constrained by his self-made grave; he pulled himself out from his earthen tomb and was pleased to find that it had protected him well and that he was relatively dry.
He spied Johnny Kincaid sitting upright still wrapped in his cloak, his head resting on his chest fast asleep. He bent down and shook Johnny gently by the shoulder.
“Johnny, are you well?”
“Well? I’m bloody soaked through, aching in every bone and frozen to the core, what could be worse?”
George hesitated before delivering the coup de grace, “Where’s your horse Johnny?”
“Blood and sands George, where’s she gone? She was tethered to my pack and I was sleeping beneath her.”
“She must have broken loose during last night,” George explained.
“I’ll have to find her” Johnny stated and rising slowly feeling like an old man with pronounced arthritis, Lieutenant Kincaid straightened himself and hobbled painfully away to find his steed.
As Johnny grumpily searched for Beth, he was able to see the general layout of the army. Initially he strode to the crossroads close in front of the Rifles. Just to the right he could see Lord Wellington and his generals discussing the dispositions of the troops and the plan of battle. Here the ground rose slightly, allowing one to see virtually the whole of the Allied front line.
The main road from Brussels ran forward into the distance towards the French campfires that he could clearly see on the horizon. The road passed through a cutting some ten feet deep at the point where Johnny stood.
The road crossing this cobbled highway was little more than a mud track and passed to left and right in a straight line across the battlefield, producing a natural line for the front of the army to form upon. Again near the crossroads this track formed a cutting well below the height of the raised ground he stood upon. Further away in both directions, the track ran along the crest of a low ridge, which would form Wellington’s front line. Wellington would station his troops as he always did, just behind the ridge to hide his dispositions and to protect the units from the heavy artillery fire, which Napoleon was sure to use. They would only move forward to defend the rise when the French attack had neared.
Just in front of the crossroads stood the farm of La Haye Sainte, which Johnny had passed on route to and from Quatre Bras the previous days.
The La Haye Sainte complex consisted of a large house and two large barns that effectively formed a U shape, high walls linked the buildings to form a square fortified farmstead. In the wall bordering the road was a large pair of wooden gates surmounted by a small tiled dovecote. This enclosed farm formed a strong defensive position and Johnny was aware of darkly dressed allied troops preparing their defences within.
He studied the landscape in front of the allied line, which the French would have to traverse in their advance. From the Allied crest, the ground gently fell away into a shallow valley before rising slowly towards a similar but lower ridge where the initial French line would have to form. To the left of the Brussels road, a smaller rise was noticeable half way across the shallow valley, Johnny’s trained eye spotted this hillock some eight hundred yards from where he stood and realised that it would form a good platform for the French artillery which would threaten this part of the line.
Having reconnoitred the battlefield, his thoughts returned to Beth and he stepped off to the left to continue the search for her. As he walked along the track cresting the ridge he looked around the camp of a Belgian regiment stationed on the front of the rise in full view of the French. He then stepped across the track and down the reverse slope of the ridge where he met Sir James Kempt and near at hand the Fifth Division, which the Rifles were attached to. In the fields behind, Johnny could see cavalry regiments awaiting orders.
“Good day Sir James, methinks Lord Wellington is happy the French delay attacking.” Johnny observed.
Sir James smiled, “Good morning Johnny, My Lord Wellington will indeed be glad for every hour that Bonaparte wastes. His Lordship has been promised that the Prussians will join us from Wavre by early afternoon if he stands here.” Looking to the left, he peered into the distance. “Let’s pray that Blucher and his Prussians do come as promised.”
Johnny probed further “Can we hold?”
Sir James looked thoughtful, “The Duke commands an army of some seventy thousand, and Napoleon we believe markedly more. My Lord is wary, as he commands a mixture of Dutch, Belgians and Germans, many with mixed emotions, as they fought for Napoleon only eighteen months ago! Even his British troops who are painfully few are generally inexperienced youngsters; this is not his Peninsula army by any means. Lord Wellington has cleverly brigaded a mix of nations together to strengthen the weaker ones. This is an infamous army and my Lord will have to work miracles to stop Napoleon.” He finished ominously.
A plump officer dressed in dark blue with a great cocked hat and white plume rode off to the left with a small lancer escort. Sir James and Johnny watched them go.
“That’s Von Muffling, the Prussian liaison officer to Lord Wellington, he’ll be looking for signs of his countrymen, otherwise the Duke will have him hung!” he jested. “There’s a rumour doing the rounds that Lord Wellington when in Brussels was surprised with news of Napoleon’s attack because that great tub of lard took forever to deliver the report from Blucher, taking twelve hours to ride twelve miles. Scurrilous rubbish! Poor Muffling is livid, as a General officer he doesn’t run messages, he doesn’t know why the despatches took so long, but it wasn’t his fault. Now if he can save the day with his countrymen, he’ll squash that stupid rumour.”
Sir James bid Johnny farewell and wished him luck finding his horse, he was going to be busy now deploying his brigade as ordered by Sir Thomas Picton including the Rifles moving forward, to occupy the sand pit opposite La Haye Sainte.
Johnny returned to the cross roads and passed to the right of the position, he found that artillery units were setting up along the track, infantry units filled the gaps between the batteries but were set slightly aback behind the crest of the ridge as he had predicted. To Johnny, the fresh-faced youths he encountered looked pale and frightened, his confidence rapidly drained away, how could they ever cope with Napoleon’s veterans? The Dutch Belgian units were intermixed with British units all along the line to give mutual courage and support. As he progressed to the right he could see woods, orchards and a large chateau, it was clearly held by British troops, their distinctive red uniforms could be seen scurrying about as they prepared to defend its walls.
The cold had permeated through to Alexander’s bones, the rain had continued relentlessly; it had been a truly miserable night. Alexander had suffered like all the others, drifting into a light sleep but reawakening with annoying regularity from the discomfort. The night hours seemed to pass exceptionally slowly but as the first hint of dawn’s approach lightened the night sky almost imperceptibly, he cheered himself as he subconsciously registered that the rain was no longer falling. This small improvement in conditions made him relax a little and he fell into a deeper, more restful sleep.
It did not last long however, the neighing of horses and trundle of cartwheels announced the return of the two wagons sent to replenish ammunition. Alexander raised himself wearily from the sodden ground half dazed.
“I trust that you were successful, Bombardier?” he called out.
“Indeed Sir” came the cheerful reply, a lot more amiably than Alexander had expected from men who had spent the night on the road.
“There was much confusion on the road with carts blocking it every so often Sir, but it gave us the opportunity to obtain some supplies from the commissariat wagons on the way” the Bombardier continued.
Alexander looked up to see the white teeth of the men emblazoned in broad grins, reflected by the early dawn light, they were holding up food! Within moments the entire troop was around them, the prospect of sustenance was too much to bear.
They had managed to acquire by various nefarious means, beef, biscuit and oatmeal, which was quickly divided between all. Better still, they had discovered a hogshead of rum and had filled all their canteens to the brim! Not one of the men had partaken of it on the journey back; they were all perfectly sober and happy to simply take their fair portion of spirits with everyone else. Alexander was proud of these men; the army was infamous for its drunkards, many would have consumed all of the rum themselves and turned up blind drunk, if they had returned at all!
The men beavered away to collect brushwood and with a little difficulty managed to build up the fires despite the damp. Once the wood had lit properly and produced heat rather than pure smoke, the iron pots were hung above. Water mixed with the biscuit and oatmeal was mixed into a sludge called ‘stir about’, many were so ravenous that they drew off a mug of mix as their share before the pots were fully warmed through. The more patient added the scrappy pieces of beef to boil in the mixture, forming a decent soup.
Whilst engaged in producing this meagre ration, dawn stole up on them; in the dull half-light dark objects near at hand started to become visible. Soon the objects took on a clear shape, indeed some showed animation, moving around distant fires. Alexander could make out other artillery troops; he rose from his warm soggy patch of earth and strolled about to investigate. One troop which he hadn’t noticed last night, was even sharing the same field. As Alexander approached their fires, he recognised the group of officers huddled around smoking cigars for comfort in the morning chill. It was Norman Ramsay’s troop, there sat his friend Alexander Macdonald discussing their situation with the famous Norman.
“Alexander, are there any orders?” he enquired.
“Alex my dear fellow” came the welcoming reply, “Norman and I have no idea what is going on, probably continue yesterday’s retreat back to Brussels I dare say”.
Alexander was perplexed, so this was what campaigning was like then, hours of sheer tedium and starvation, mixed with periods of complete confusion and extreme excitement. No wonder everyone said their training in England could never prepare them for real campaigning.
He did not stop for long, but walked across the field to a low hedge, beyond which he could see numerous cavalry regiments, the horses tethered and grazing nonchalantly, whilst many of the men lay nearby still rolled in their grey blankets sound asleep. Another troop of horse artillery was parked amongst them; Alexander recognised them instantly and ran over to greet them.
It was D troop, Captain George Beane commanding, a peninsula veteran who had got to know Alexander well back in England after the last war. William Webber another old hand was there as well, they were extremely pleased to see him as he walked into their camp.
“Alexander, what a joy to see you, where is G troop?”
“We are just beyond the hedge with H troop alongside.”
“We arrived last night, direct from England, what’s brewing?” George Beane enquired.
Alexander shrugged, “No one seems to know the Duke’s plans, we had a fine retreat yesterday, just like on a parade ground, with Boney himself watching!”
Alexander could feel their bitterness and jealousy at his words. For all their peninsula experience while Alexander had languished in England, he now had an experience they could not better. He had seen Napoleon himself! They hadn’t faced the ‘Ogre’ in Spain, just his hench men.
“Perhaps we will see him today” William said hopefully, “we may even have him in our sights!”
Alexander looked doubtful, “All the talk is of retreat as the Prussians have been beaten heavily.”